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The String Bass


Welcome, as we continue our week at the museum! Along the museum storage shelves are some dangerous artifacts, including pistols, rifles and medicine laced with mercury. Today's object, however, is hardly dangerous.

Sitting on its side is a string bass. The large instrument has long cracks running along the wood, banged up edges and old repairs. Two strings, added for exhibit, lay slack against the wood, while a third string is missing. Although most basses today are four-stringed, three stringers were common until the 1900s. According to Duane Voskuil with Voskuil Violins and Repair in Bismarck, the bass was professionally made. However, few of these craftsmen were found across the frontier, and since the bass lacks a manufacturer's label, its exact origin is unknown. The instrument likely traveled quite a ways to Fort Abraham Lincoln.

Despite budget cuts for the military after the Civil War, bands remained important parts of military life. Custer's 7th Cavalry had its own group and one officer suggested recruiting European immigrants as musicians. Perhaps this is how August Bruns joined up with Custer's 7th Cavalry band when he emigrated from Germany in 1873 with his wife and daughter.

Bruns would've played a brass instrument for the military's routine drills, dress parades and marches. For more genteel officer's gatherings and social functions, he plucked the strings of the bass that now resides at the museum. His fingers played across the fingerboard, rubbing away the black paint to reveal the underlying wood.

Heading out on military expeditions, the big bass likely stayed behind. On the morning of May 17, 1876, August Bruns departed Fort Abraham Lincoln to Custer's favorite song "Garry Owen." Stopping outside the fort, wives waved goodbye and tried to smile as the band played "The Girl I Left Behind."

That expedition is the stuff of legend now and on June 25th Custer began the fateful battle of Little Bighorn. What exactly happened remains cloudy, but all those in Custer's immediate command perished.

August Bruns' little girl would later remember the weeping when a messenger read off the list of dead as he delivered the news to the families at the fort. However, she did not hear her father's name. As a private in Company E, and possibly a member of the band, Bruns had been ordered to guard the pack train of supplies. He survived.

On this date in 1876, August Bruns was marching back to the fort. He later opened up a small boot and repair shop in Mandan, homesteaded and watched his children and grandchildren grow up. Throughout it all, he continued making music with local groups. Though the string bass's days of playing are long over, it reminds us of the colorful Custer era at Fort Abraham Lincoln.

Dakota Datebook written by Alyssa Boge


Accession Record for object 9532

Fort Lincoln Post Return Log

Naturalization Record